Molly Jong-Fast has 1 million followers on Twitter, and sometimes people want to do more than just follow her. On a few occasions, impersonators have sent out tweets in her name. The fakes “get shut down pretty quick,” she says, because discerning users know the real Jong-Fast — a podcaster, journalist and newly signed Vanity Fair contributor — is among the estimated 0.1 percent of Twitter users with a blue check signifying that her identity has been verified. So her followers know to report the Faux Mollys to Twitter authorities.
But would she pay for the privilege of that blue check mark?
A plan floated by new owner Elon Musk to start charging verified users — a group that includes A-list celebrities, corporate brands and little-known elected officials — for the previously free service and offering it more widely to the rest of the world has generated a vigorous debate. And some of the loudest backlash come from a cohort that arguably gripes about Twitter the most while using it avidly: journalists and other media personalities, many of whom say they are not inclined to pay.
“Being verified doesn’t matter to me because I’ve never understood the point of verification as it currently exists,” said Matt Pearce, a verified Los Angeles Times reporter with 155,000 followers. “But if suddenly the new point of verification is to help Twitter raise revenue, why should I help Twitter raise revenue? They’re already making ad money off the tweets that I and everybody else have been writing for them for free.”
Designed to counter the spread of misinformation and impersonators, the badges have become, for critics, an emblem of elitism and liberal groupthink. The phrase “blue check crowd” is bandied about as shorthand for privilege and snobbery. Musk himself sneered at the concept in a tweet on Tuesday, describing the current division between the badged and unbadged as a “lords and peasants system.”
He framed his plan to add verification to the premium Twitter Blue program in revolutionary terms: “Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.” Pearce sees the class dynamic a little differently, likening his participation on Twitter to “the world’s longest unpaid internship” and now “they want me to rent desk space.”
Twitter, which is rife with parody and troll accounts named after famous people, began handing out blue checks on an experimental basis in 2009, soon after its founding, amid complaints from people like baseball manager Tony LaRussa and rapper Kanye West that people were impersonating them. The first verified account: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It opened up the verification process to all comers in 2016, though it maintained the final say over who qualified in a process that seemed largely mysterious to outsiders. Mainstream news outlets, including The Washington Post, rushed to receive Twitter verification for their journalists, and Twitter granted many of these requests en masse, swelling the ranks of the blue checks to include some relatively obscure people who happen to work in media.
There are now estimated to be more than 400,000 blue checks on Twitter, encompassing accounts from the Fencing Association of India (1,058 followers) to film director Ava DuVernay (2.6 million) to, yes, Elon Musk (114 million). Similar verification systems have since been adopted on other social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the 400 million Twitter accounts remain unverified, which has led to no end of class conflict.
In some corners of Twitter, the check is considered a status symbol and potentially a career booster. Lesser-known artists, for instance, can achieve greater visibility with a check next to their name. But an “us versus them” dynamic has turned partisan in recent years. Some conservative users denigrate the “blue check crowd” for their privileges and alleged liberal bias, not withstanding that nearly all prominent Republicans have blue checks. (Twitter says that accounts must be “authentic, notable, and active” to qualify for verification.)
In the wake of Musk’s confirmation this week that he is considering a paid system, many blue checks have firmly rejected the idea, and some have promised to abandon Twitter if the system is implemented. Meredith Haggerty, a senior editor at Vox, cast the issue as a matter of opposing Musk, a publicly divisive billionaire who also runs Tesla and SpaceX. “I am truly delighted to give up a blue check in the name of not giving [Musk] money,” she tweeted. “It’s the first time the blue check has ever had any value.”
Had a dream ln i got verified, and my mom told me to take out the trash and i said Hire a maid because we dont gotta live like that anymore— YaLocalWhiteBoy (@NoHoesGeorge) August 24, 2016
Sportswriter Molly Knight noted the irony of Musk’s “lords and peasants” comment, tweeting at him: “So your plan to solve a ‘lords and peasants’ problem is by putting a blue check next to the names of people who can afford this service and giving nothing to the people who can’t. lol.”
In one of the most broadly shared tweets of the past few days, author Stephen King suggested that he is more valuable to Twitter than Twitter is to him by virtue of his 6.9 million followers. “$20 a month to keep my blue check?” King tweeted early Monday, referencing early reporting about the proposed fees, adding an expletive. “They should pay me. If that gets instituted, I’m gone.” In reply, Musk, one of the richest men in the world, appeared to haggle: “We need to pay the bills somehow!” he replied. “Twitter cannot rely entirely on advertisers. How about $8?”
Some raised concerns about changes that would monetize or dilute the verification process. “It’s worth recalling what the purpose of those blue badges are: verifying information on the platform,” wrote journalist Adam Klasfeld in a tweet on Monday. “My account was impersonated twice while I was covering contentious court proceedings in [the United States] and Turkey, and both times, the fake accounts were quickly spotted and suspended.”
If a significant number of blue check marks decide to give up their badges rather than pay? That could be a recipe for chaos, some argue. “I’m not a lawyer, but I’m betting the rise of impersonations will make Twitter (more) radioactive for advertisers, hastening collapse,” political pundit and writer Rick Wilson told The Post in an online interview. He predicts that it could exacerbate Twitter’s worst tendencies, turning it into “a festering Mad Max hellscape of alt-right idiots.”
And then where would everyone go to complain about Twitter? Jong-Fast, for all her hesitations about Musk’s plans, is not yet eyeing the exits. “Until there’s another text-based social media company,” she said, “there’s no place to go.”